It was only a few years ago that my colleagues and I discussed the possibility of “thousand dollar diplomas”. I never thought I’d see the day when certificate course costs would surge towards $5000 and a diploma could cost upwards of $10000. The ongoing discussions in the media about funding cuts and the impact on enrolment numbers are echoed in social media comments left by students lamenting that their courses have become too expensive to complete. As students sign up for government-subsidised courses that may incur a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, I can’t help but grieve for the loss of an entire community sector. I can appreciate that funding models need to change over time, and the reasoning has always been that industry skills need to be met and people need to be trained to fill identified skills gaps. With any funding model comes compliance, data-crunching and statistics that need to justify the expenditure. But there’s a side of vocational training that I’ve experienced delivering entry level courses through community colleges and not-for-profit training organisations that I think gets forgotten in the political arena.
For me the most memorable students were not the high academic achievers but those that triumph over personal struggles to attend a course.
Years ago, a gentleman enrolled in a Certificate III Business Administration program asked to speak to a colleague and I about dropping out of the course. He told us about his childhood illness, a very rare disorder that meant numerous hospital visits and doctors that used him as a guinea pig. He suffered incredible trauma and some of the ‘tests’ amounted to sexual assault. As a result he was suffering from PTSD and depression and thought it best to drop out of the course because he didn’t have the concentration and ability to complete so many different tasks. After listening to him speak I asked him if there was ONE thing he wanted to achieve or just ONE skill that he wanted to focus on and suggested that he could attend the course and just work at his own pace and not worry about the entire course. He chose touch typing. He enjoyed it and found it relaxing and he could see that he was getting really good at it. So that’s what he did. He didn’t learn the office programs, didn’t do the filing or mailing subjects or give a presentation for the communication unit, but he still attended class and socialised and steadily practiced his touch typing drills.
Years later I bumped into him in town. He told me that he had found work and that everyone gave him their typing to do because they hated it and he was happy to do it. The workplace gave him the opportunity to develop the other administration skills that he didn’t get to complete in class.
Somewhere in a government database his academic records show that he didn’t complete a course, the college didn’t receive a ‘completion’ payment and he is a negative statistic in vocational training. But I remember the traumatised, soft spoken gentleman that nearly quit and the pride and confidence in his voice after he found a job.
Another student came to a childcare course information and enrolment day and told me that she hadn’t finished her school certificate. She wasn’t interested in working in a childcare centre at all but she really wanted to get into youth work. She had been homeless and had a family history of poverty and abuse. I told her that if she wanted to do the course and use it as a stepping stone to get into youth work, I’d help her. It was hard and at times required some ‘tough love’ from myself and the other students. There were many learned behaviours that she had to overcome, from interrupting in class to discussing inappropriate topics and learning time management and study skills. When we were discussing how children develop self-help skills and learn to dress themselves we talked about how funny their chosen outfits can be. She casually mentioned that up until a few years earlier she had no idea that you were supposed to wear a pair of socks. As a young child she’d gone to the tip to find clothing and finding two socks was a blessing so for many years she wore whatever two socks she had, not knowing that socks actually come in pairs. After being told by a caseworker that she’d never finish the course or amount to anything in life, she was able to proudly say that she gained her certificate. I hope she went on to become the youth worker she dreamed of being because her life experiences and knowledge she gained about child development and child protection would be invaluable.
Another young woman that attended, but didn’t complete, the childcare course was extremely shy and didn’t participate much in class. I ran into her in a shopping centre last year and she sat with me while our children played. It turned out that she had dropped out of the course because she was pregnant (after being told she would never have children) and she was in a strained relationship. Her daughter was born with a developmental disability and she was now a single mother. Although she didn’t complete the course she told me that what she did learn about child development and supporting children had helped her find the resources and support that she needed to help her daughter and that she continued to use many of the techniques that I taught her to help guide her daughter’s behaviour and communicate with her.
Another ‘incomplete’ statistic on a government database that doesn’t measure the true value of funding vocational education in the community.
Lastly there was a woman that attended a Certificate II in Business course that was a victim of domestic violence. She was quiet but sociable and the group was very supportive. One morning she showed up a little late with what were clearly fresh bruises to her face and hands. A couple of other students stood by her when she came to talk to me. I don’t remember exactly how I handled it but we were close to a police station and I encouraged her to report the incident. The other students offered to go with her and they escorted her to the police station to report this assault.
We know that education can change lives. We know that community based courses give isolated people and people in need an opportunity to participate in a group, develop skills and overcome incredible obstacles in life. I can give you academic results for quizzes, tests and assignments, but I cannot give you any statistics on how we were able to change people’s lives.
The funding that allows training organisations to deliver complete courses over several months gives students the time to develop their social skills, form friendships and participate in a community as well as giving them the time to practice skills and prepare for assessments. When our students are dealing with trauma, poverty, violence and a myriad of other obstacles, a community focused learning environment can give them a safe place to face their fears and develop the skills that they need to grow, move forward and then participate in the community.
(p.s. Surely I can’t be alone in these experiences as a vocational trainer and assessor at private and not-for-profit RTOs?)
(p.p.s. Shout-out to Wesley Vocational Training in Wollongong and Figtree Anglican Church for providing the most supportive training environment I’ve ever had the privilege of working in)